Feminine Mystique

To design a new generation of shoes for women, Nike turned to nature for inspiration. In particular, the company adopted the stance of the lioness: tough and feminine.

The Nike story -- from the shoes to the ads to the stores -- has always been fueled by a healthy dose of testosterone. So as the leaders of the Nike Goddess movement work to make the company's products and messages more compelling to women, they have been exploring a question so basic that it feels almost seditious: What does "feminine" mean, anyway?

Their search for answers did not take them to Milan's fashion runways or to Martha Stewart's kitchen. Instead, they looked to the burgeoning field of biomimicry, which seeks design ideas from the logic of nature.

Pop quiz: Pick an animal or insect that you believe exudes the feminine mystique. If you're like the Nike designers (mainly women) participating in a recent biomimicry workshop, you picked a cat, a butterfly, or a swan -- creatures defined by their beauty, elegance, and grace.

But actually, argues Dayna Baumeister, a Montana-based biologist who ran the workshop, those traits are as much cultural as they are biological. In nature, traits such as strength, competitiveness, and aggression are as common in females as in males. Think of the lioness, she says. Beautiful, yes. But delicate? Not by a long shot. In fact, lionesses are the tribe's hunters -- the male usually waits until the prey is dead before he dines.

Indeed, in humans, males are the weaker sex biologically, Baumeister says: "More males are born premature, and most natural miscarriages are of males." Females -- across nature -- are as strong as, if not stronger than, males because of the pressures of reproduction. "We have to stay healthy longer, have more endurance to parent. It's biological," Baumeister says.

For Nike designer Seana Hannah, that kind of insight was a wake-up call: "To hear women at Nike saying 'feminine' meant delicate and dainty was incredible." Hannah is pushing her team to "get beyond flowing lines and passive colors" when they design for women. "Biomimicry taught me that you can design a shoe that looks both feminine and tough."

Fara Warner (fwarner@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco. Visit Nike Goddess on the Web.

Read the main story: Nike's Women's Movement

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